Fired California bar leader sues 'with heavy heart,' alleges 'egregious improprieties'
Updated: The fired executive director of the California State Bar says in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that he was let go for exposing “egregious improprieties.”
Joe Dunn says in the suit (PDF) that he was told of his firing last week, just days after he and seven other anonymous complainants filed whistleblower notices with the bar. According to the suit, those whistleblower complaints alleged “ethical breaches, prosecutorial lapses and fiscal improprieties” by some bar officials.
Dunn, a former state senator, filed the suit on Thursday just hours after the bar publicly announced his departure. Publications reporting on the complaint include the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and the Recorder (sub. req.), which said that Dunn’s four-year tenure with the state bar “has been marked by tumult and turnover.”
According to the suit, the whistleblower complaints:
–Alleged that chief trial counsel Jayne Kim removed a category of discipline cases from reports to conceal the true backlog of disciplinary cases. “Kim’s conduct did not involve a few isolated cases but was shockingly rampant,” the suit alleges.
The Recorder notes that Kim was “hired on Dunn’s watch” after he fired four veteran prosecutors and had a role in the departure of Kim’s predecessor. Dunn’s aim had been to revamp the disciplinary process after a state audit found that the backlog was not included in the bar’s annual discipline report.
–Alleged that Kim failed “to proactively investigate and prosecute” alleged unauthorized practice of law by notaries and others.
–Alleged that the bar retained a law firm with close ties to a bar trustee to evaluate a complaint made by Kim against Dunn, and likely paid the firm more than $300,000. Dunn alleges that Kim’s complaint against him was an attempt “to preserve her position.” He also alleges that the hiring of the law firm was “an utter waste of state bar membership dues” because a retired state supreme court justice had offered to do the work for free.
According to the suit, State Bar President Craig Holden told several people he wanted “to do something about Dunn” with the implication that Holden wanted Dunn fired, and Holden’s actions are “part of an effort to usurp executive authority in the state bar.”
“Under the leadership of Holden,” the suit alleges, “the state bar has targeted some of the [other whistleblowers] with various degrees of discipline and retaliation because they corroborated” Dunn’s allegations and joined his whistleblower notices.
“It is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that Sen. Dunn has been compelled to bring this action against the State Bar of California, an organization that he has loyally served for four years,” the suit says. “However, given the glaring injustices, unethical conduct and massive cover-up that has crippled the state bar’s ability to function, this action has become necessary to restore the public trust and confidence in the state bar, to restore the integrity of the organization, and to vindicate Senator Dunn’s rights.”
A bar spokesperson told the Recorder the group does not comment on pending litigation. Holden referred questions to communications staffers, but said the bar is also terminating a contract with a consultant, Richie Ross, who most recently worked on the bar’s legal aid matters. According to the Recorder, Ross was a “longtime political ally” of Dunn; the bar had refused to release information about his pay and contract terms.
Holden told the Daily Journal (sub. req.) that he recommended John Keker of Keker & Van Nest to represent the state bar. Holden also told the Daily Journal he has “zero interest” in the position of bar executive director.
Keker told the Daily Journal he thinks the lawsuit is “overblown and eminently defensible.”
The state bar issued a statement Saturday evening saying Dunn’s claims of being a whistleblower are “bewildering” and his suit is baseless. The suit falsely suggests Dunn’s firing was due to whistleblower letters sent to the bar by his lawyer, Mark Geragos.
The letters from Geragos never identified Dunn as one of the whisteblowers and even alleged that staffers in the executive director’s office were shredding documents, the statement said. In addition, the whistleblower letters were sent after the bar’s board had authorized an investigation of Dunn and received the investigating law firm’s report.
The investigating law firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson was selected by incoming state bar officers through a request for proposal process, who believed its proposal “would best enable this important work to be done in the most cost-effective, comprehensive, and timely manner,” the statement said. The bar’s Board of Trustees then approved the scope of work and budget. The investigation started in August, and the results were presented to the Board of Trustees on Oct. 17 and 30, the statement said.
Additional complaints against Dunn were received, and the Board of Trustees decided on Nov. 7 to notify Dunn that it was exercising its rights to fire him, the statement says. The public statement confirming Dunn’s termination was made on Nov. 13.
“At no time prior to Nov. 13 was Joe Dunn ever identified as a whistleblower, and he never brought any such claims to the Board,” the statement says. “Indeed, it’s bewildering to hear Mr. Dunn claim he is a whistleblower since as the executive who is head of the entire organization he is responsible for managing operations and the over 500 employees, and he only belatedly raised claims after he was given notice of termination of his employment agreement, and after a settlement discussion with his counsel at the Girardi & Keese firm reached an impasse on Nov. 12. During our entire negotiations with Howard Miller, which concluded the evening of Nov.r 12, Miller never once claimed that Dunn was a whistleblower.”
Updated at 12:15 p.m. to add information from the Daily Journal. Updated at 2:20 p.m. to correct number of whistleblowers. Updated on Nov. 16 to add information provided in statement by the state bar.